It’s amazing what you can learn about a person in 45 minutes. After 6 long months the Whitemud Citizen’s for Public Health (WCPH)* was granted an audience with the Health Minister, Mr. Zwozdesky. It’s hard to describe the meeting, although the word bizarre springs to mind.
WCPH hoped to have a meaningful dialogue with the Minister about the new Alberta Health Act, the privatization of seniors care and transparency and accountability. Instead we were treated to a dazzling demonstration of how the Zwoz keeps the public, the press and the opposition at bay when they ask a difficult question. Here’s the Coles Notes version of Zwoz’s technique: start with the political pulpit—describe something, anything, the government has done and hope that this deflects the troublesome question. If that fails try the conjurer’s trick of misdirection “black is white, you must be mistaken” and as a last resort fall back on the Sgt Schultz response “I know nothing”.**
Here’s how Zwoz used the razzle dazzle technique to dance around our agenda:
The new Alberta Health Act: We asked why the Act is peppered with phrases which open the door to increased privatization? Why is the independence of the Health Advocate compromised by making him report directly to the Minister instead of the Legislature? And why is the Minister given the power to make major changes to the Act by passing regulations instead of bringing these changes to the Legislature?
The Minister popped out of the political pulpit: his government had made a 5 year funding commitment to ensure financial stability. Yes, that was wonderful, but it’s not what we were talking about. Unfazed he moved to misdirection suggesting that our concerns about privatization were based on “rumours” we’d picked up from the leaked paper which set out the transition to the new Alberta Health Act.
This was a shrewd move. By raising the leaked paper first he was able to reshape it to his liking. He said the reference to “privatization” (in fact the entire leaked paper) was simply a reflection of the public’s feedback and did not represent the government’s position at all. Black is white.
Sensing our scepticism (the leaked paper sets out a plan to roll 5 additional pieces of legislation into the new Alberta Health Act—hardly the kind of thing the public would dream up) Zwoz dropped back to the Sgt Schultz defence. He was not in caucus the day the paper was presented and had nothing further to say. Did a rogue government employee take the paper to caucus and get the Premier’s blessing without Zwoz’s knowledge or consent? It doesn’t matter. Zwoz knows nothing about it, so drop it and move on.
What about the Minister’s power to make substantial changes to the Act by passing regulations, thereby avoiding Legislative (public) scrutiny? Zwoz assured us that his power only applied to minor regulatory changes; substantive changes would continue to go before the Legislature. Really? Furthermore, the regulations would be published for all to see. Lovely, published where and for how long? Zwoz thought they’d be published for 30 days on the Health and Wellness website but he wasn’t sure. As far as he was concerned the promise to “publish” a regulation granting him new powers was a fine example of openness and transparency. The question of whether he should have those powers in the first place was irrelevant. Black is white.
Privatization of seniors care: WCPH turned to the government’s “aging in place” policy. This policy will ensure that seniors get the level of care they need without having to move to a new residence every time the level of care increases. Sounds fine in theory, but the government has reduced the number of public care facilities in favour of facilities run by for-profit companies. We illustrated our concern with for-profit facilities by describing the appalling care a senior had received in the for-profit Touchmark facility after she’d left the public Good Samaritan facility.
Zwoz responded from the political pulpit. He’d build 1100 “spaces” already. Interesting, but not relevant. He expressed surprise that the Good Samaritan had provided poor care. It didn’t and we didn’t say that it did. The culprit in this story was Touchmark, not Good Samaritan. Brownie points for misdirection though.
He knew nothing of Touchmark (ah the Sgt Schultz gambit) and added that he was besieged by for-profit companies begging for more money, but he refused to give it to them. I think he thought this would impress us, but it simply confirmed the fundamental problem with for-profit service providers. If they can’t make their profit margins by government subsidies, they will raise fees and reduce costs by cutting services. The result: staff reductions and poorer quality of care.
Transparency and accountability: We referred the Minister to a recent article by Frank Work, the Privacy Commissioner, in which Mr Work advised PC leadership candidates not to promise openness, transparency and accountability unless they really mean it, because the voters would actually call them on it if they failed to deliver. What was his reaction?
Zwoz had two comments. He wasn’t aware of Frank Work’s article. Sgt Schultz again. But when Mr Stelmach took office he swept away the closed opaque regime created by Mr Klein and created the open transparent government we see today. Classic black is white.
Okay, let’s discuss the government’s refusal to call a public inquiry and the impact this had on public trust. Zwoz explained that public inquiries take years and cost millions of dollars, the Health Quality Council of Alberta had everything in hand and would issue progress reports in 3, 6, and 9 months. Ann McLellan was an advisor, how could we doubt her integrity? Think about this a moment. Our question focused on the issue of public trust. Zwod turned it into a question of time, cost and whether Ann McLellan was biased. Nice piece of misdirection Mr Minister.
We were now 15 minutes past our allotted time (and ready to throw ourselves into the reflecting pool outside the Legislature). We thanked the Health Minister for his time and asked to come back another day to continue the conversation. He stopped short of saying are you kidding me? Instead he pointed out that he was a very busy man. This portfolio was the busiest he’d had in 18 years in government, busy, busy, busy. Not to put too fine a point on it—we were done.
Mr Zwozdesky is not the Wizard of Oz. He’s the MC at the Cirque du Soleil. He’s so busy promoting the party line and the interests of the private sector that he doesn’t have the time nor the inclination to listen to Albertans. But the WCPH and groups like it all across the province will not be distracted by the razzle dazzle of the performance even when we end up with front row seats. There is serious work to be done. If this group of politicians won’t address the issues raised by Albertans, there is someone else waiting in the wings who will.
* WCPH was originally formed by the citizens of Whitemud, but has expanded to include citizens across the province. It’s a non-partisan group focussing on health services and seniors care.
**For the youngsters in the crowd, Sgt Schultz was a character in Hogan’s Heroes, a sitcom set in a German POW camp. Schultz was an incompetent oaf who distanced himself from trouble with the classic phrase “I know nothing, I know nothing.”